Esophagus Cancer Overview

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Treating Esophagus Cancer TOPICS

Chemotherapy for cancer of the esophagus

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given into a vein or taken by mouth. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body.

Chemo by itself rarely cures esophageal cancer. Often it is combined with radiation (known as chemoradiation).

Chemo can be used in several ways:

  • As part of the main treatment along with radiation
  • Before surgery (most often with radiation) to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove. This called neoadjuvant treatment.
  • After the cancer has been treated by surgery (and most often with radiation) to try to kill any tumor cells that may have been left behind. This is called adjuvant treatment.
  • Alone or with radiation to help control symptoms like pain or trouble swallowing when the cancer can’t be cured. This is called palliative treatment.

Many different chemo drugs can be used to treat esophagus cancer. Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each period of treatment followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Each chemo cycle typically lasts for a few weeks.

Side effects of chemotherapy

The side effects of chemo will depend on the type of drugs given, the amount taken, and how long treatment lasts. The most common side effects include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Tiredness or shortness of breath (from a shortage of red blood cells)

Along with the risks above, some chemo drugs can cause other, less common side effects, such as nerve damage. Most side effects go away once treatment is over. If you have side effects, talk with your doctor or nurse, as there are often ways to help.

People with esophageal cancer often have problems such as trouble eating and weight loss before the cancer is even found. Treatments like chemo and radiation can cause painful sores in the mouth and throat, which can make it even harder to eat and get good nutrition. Some people with esophagus cancer need to have a feeding tube put in before treatment. This is done through a small hole in the skin over the belly during a minor surgery. The tube allows liquid “food” to be put right into the intestine. A feeding tube can help prevent further weight loss and may help make it easier to get through treatment.

If you want to learn more about chemo, please see the Chemotherapy section of our website, or our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

If you’d like to know more about a drug used in your treatment, see our Guide to Cancer Drugs, or call us with the names of the medicines you’re taking.


Last Medical Review: 05/21/2014
Last Revised: 05/27/2014